Minnesota man settles coercion lawsuit against bishop

A Minnesota man who had wanted to become a Catholic deacon has settled his coercion claims against his bishop in exchange for an undisclosed sum of money and the release of a letter he alleged he was forced to sign.

Ronald Vasek, of Tabor, alleged in a lawsuit filed in May that Bishop Michael Hoeppner of the Diocese of Crookston in northwestern Minnesota blackmailed him into signing a letter in 2015 that essentially retracted his allegation that a popular priest from the diocese abused him during a trip to Ohio in 1971 when he was 16. Vasek claimed that Hoeppner threatened a few years earlier to block his path to becoming a deacon and to harm his son's career in the priesthood if word ever got out.

Vasek went public in May, saying the threat to his son had kept him silent until he was called into a meeting with his bishop this past March and was told his pastor had withdrawn his support for his ordination.

Vasek's attorneys released the letter Thursday. It's written on the office of the bishop's letterhead, dated Oct. 21, 2015, and states:

"I, Ron Vasek, regarding a trip I was on when I was 16 years old, and on which a priest of the Diocese of Crookston was also participating, clearly and freely state that I have no desire to nor do I make any accusation of sexual impropriety by the priest toward me."

Attorney Mike Finnegan said the letter proves that the bishop coerced Vasek into retracting his abuse claim.

"It's quite shocking and appalling that a bishop in this day and age, this recently, would do something like this," Finnegan said.

Hoeppner said in a statement Wednesday that he made no admission of unlawful conduct or wrongdoing under the settlement, and he said the money would be paid by the diocese's insurance company. He denied pressuring Vasek to remain quiet at either of their first two meetings.

"Looking back and knowing what I do now, I believe I would have handled my conversations with Mr. Vasek differently," the bishop said. "However, please know that I did not pressure Mr. Vasek into making any decision with which he was not comfortable."

Hoeppner also said he was willing to ordain Vasek as a permanent deacon, but that Vasek chose not to be ordained.

"In conscience he couldn't become a deacon for this bishop after what this bishop did to him," Finnegan explained. "But Ron is still a man of deep faith and love for the Catholic church and his community in Crookston."

Finnegan said Vasek's claims against the diocese itself remain pending. The judge has not yet ruled on the diocese's motion to dismiss them.

The priest, Monsignor Roger Grundhaus, a former vicar general of the diocese, remains suspended from public ministry until the matter is resolved.